Helping Yourself – October 30, 2016

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter ThompsonPeter
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
October 30, 2016

Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

The 2003 Tony-winning Broadway musical Avenue Q is crude and offensive, yet not even the crassest that musical theater has to offer is beyond exploitation by the Sunday morning preacher—especially this preacher, who is flush with musical theater spirit in the wake of his second annual appearance in the St. Paul’s Cabaret. This particular morning, I wish to draw your attention to a number that happens towards the end of Avenue Q called “The Money Song,” in which the despairing protagonist, Princeton, encounters his acquaintance Nicky, who had recently become homeless. Nicky, recognizing Princeton, demands a quarter from him, telling him that “helping others brings you closer to God.” But when Princeton lets Nicky know that he has no change, Nicky is happy to revise his request to a dollar or a five. “The more you give, the more you get,” he sings in response, “that’s being alive. All I’m asking you is to do what Jesus Christ would do. He’d give me a quarter. Why don’t you?” Sufficiently shamed by Nicky’s invocation of the Savior, Princeton reluctantly surrenders and hands Nicky the quarter.

Yet Princeton is not prepared for what happens next. Giving away even a quarter has caused something dramatic to happen within him, and Princeton is stunned. “Woah!” he says, with genuine surprise, “I feel generous. I feel compassionate. I feel like a new person—a good person. Helping other people out makes you feel fantastic. All this time I’ve been running around thinking about me, me, me. I’m going to do something for someone else.” Suddenly inspired to make a difference for others, Princeton embarks on a mission to raise money for a school for under-served students. In fact, Princeton is so enthusiastic to get going that he makes the interesting choice of begging for money from the homeless man he had just given a quarter to. Nicky, the homeless man, is skeptical, but Princeton eventually prevails in getting Nicky to give away money, and Nicky experiences the same surprise Princeton did, proclaiming as he gives away his money that, shockingly, he is “feeling closer to God.” Once Princeton has Nicky’s money in hand, Princeton and Nicky take their search for money to a whole host of others, and everyone they ask for money comes to the same realization—that giving feels great. In the words of the song’s chorus, “every time you do good deeds, you’re also serving your own needs…when you help others you can’t help helping yourself.”

Well, if you haven’t guessed where am I going yet, let me remind you that it’s stewardship season. It’s that time of the year when churches everywhere, as they plan for next year’s budget, ask their members to make a pledge of financial support for the coming year. Churches utilize a multitude of arguments and techniques in their attempt to get as many people as possible to participate and as much money as possible raised. Their approaches typically include a statement about how necessary the financial support of members is to the successful functioning of a church and a reminder of the Christian moral obligation to give back from the abundance God has given us. Both of these arguments are good ones, in my opinion: this church cannot exist without the pledges of all of you, and giving is enshrined in our Christian tradition. But this morning, as many of you contemplate your own pledge to this community for the coming year, I’d like to take my inspiration from Avenue Q and the Gospel reading we heard just a few minutes ago, and offer yet another argument for why you should pledge generously to St. Paul’s.

Put simply, my argument is this: giving is good for you. Now admittedly, I have a bit of a conflict of interest in making this argument to you during pledge season, but if you don’t want to take my word for it exclusively, and if “The Money Song” from Avenue Q doesn’t convince you, then perhaps Jesus will.

Jesus doesn’t really have a reputation as a person who was good with money. If you think about Jesus’ economic philosophy, the first thing that probably comes to mind is his proclamation that the poor are blessed or his claim that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Jesus even seems a bit naïve about money, if truth be told. But make no mistake: Jesus operated in the real world where money was a necessary part of living and Jesus certainly came into contact with money over the course of his ministry. Remember, for instance, how he tells his followers to pay their taxes by rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and recall how Judas Iscariot was known for holding the disciples’ common purse. Jesus knew that to live in this world one had to deal with money.

Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus could even be interpreted as evidence that, when it came to money, Jesus was kind of shrewd. People may wonder why Jesus makes the effort to spot a small short man in such a large crowd, but maybe it wasn’t exactly a coincidence that Jesus made a special effort to notice Zacchaeus. Are we really supposed to believe that of all the people Jesus could have singled out from the vast crowd surrounding him that Jesus just happens to pick the chief tax collector, probably the richest person there? I don’t know. Perhaps Jesus knew a potential large donor when he saw him—and, almost like magic, Jesus’ fundraiser charms made Zacchaeus part with half of all his possessions.

The most fascinating part of this story for me is that Jesus focuses not so much on the beneficiaries of the Zacchaeus’ generosity as he does on the benefits Zacchaeus will receive for himself. Jesus doesn’t say: “thanks to your generous donations, this many people will now have something to eat,” or “because of you, all of these folks without a home will now suddenly have a place to sleep,” or even, “your pledge has ensured that this church will now be open for generations upon generations.” Jesus says, “salvation has come upon this house”—meaning Zacchaeus’. Zacchaeus comes out of this episode better off, at least in a spiritual sense, than he was before. From Jesus’ perspective, it seems, Zacchaeus gives away money not primarily for others’ benefit but for his own.

Of course, most of us don’t have Zacchaeus’ kind of money, and for that and other reasons this story doesn’t serve as a perfect model for us when it comes to how we deal with our own money. Nonetheless, Zacchaeus demonstrates how freeing and empowering it can be to give, a lesson that I think does have relevance for how we make decisions about our charitable giving and, indeed, money in general. After all, in giving from what we have, we make a decision about what matters to us and display concretely what we desire to have a stake in. When I make my pledge to St. Paul’s, I make a statement that this is a place that matters to me, that I care deeply about its survival and its flourishing. And I have a similar feeling each time I give to an educational institution that has helped me grow academically or spiritually or another organization that has contributed to my development as a person or whose work I genuinely admire. My monetary gifts, I’ll admit, aren’t huge. I’m not really in a position in my life in which I am able to give in large amounts, and all of the organizations I give to would definitely survive without my small contributions; they don’t really need me in any fundamental sense. Ultimately, the person who gets the most out of the gifts I make is me. Giving offers me the opportunity to make a statement about what I believe in, to declare for myself what matters. And if an organization and its mission benefit because of that—all the better.

So I ask you to make generous pledges to this tremendously kind and welcoming faith community that offers so much day in and day out to those who worship here and all of greater Norwalk, but more than that, I urge you to take all of your giving seriously, however meager and insignificant your gifts may seem to you and whatever the worthy organizations are that are the grateful beneficiaries of your generosity. Your gifts of time and of talent and of money, especially when added up, really do make a difference to the communities and people that you care about, and perhaps just as importantly, your gifts allow you to invest and feel ownership in the causes dearest to your heart. Through your gifts, you undoubtedly help others, but, as Avenue Q tells us, “when you help others, you can’t help helping yourself.”

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